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Debating the Legacy of “Putinochet”

From this weekend’s FT:

With nine months left before he is due to step down, the world is still groping to answer the question that has been posed throughout the former KGB colonel’s seven-year presidency: “Who is Mr Putin?” First he was the soft-authoritarian liberal, “Putinochet”, who would restore order after the chaotic post-Soviet 1990s while driving through liberal economic reforms. After September 11 2001, he was the west’s friend, telephoning Mr Bush with sympathies and backing US military bases in former Soviet central Asia to support the war in Afghanistan. Since his 2003 assault on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, boss of the Yukos oil company, in a campaign to crush the wealthy “oligarchs” who grabbed power under president Boris Yeltsin, Mr Putin has seemed a darker figure. This Putin has clamped down aggressively on opposition and the media, grabbed state control of energy assets and used cold war-style rhetoric against the west. But over his two presidential terms, a clearer sense has emerged of Mr Putin’s character. Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Putin biographer, says he is warm in private. “In personal contacts he is much more charming, more open,” Mr Rahr says. “He can win people over in one-to-one debates more than in front of the broad public.” That may explain Mr Putin’s success in turning foreign leaders such as Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi into friends. But in public, Mr Putin can appear cold indeed. After 336 people died in the Beslan tragedy, the Russian president in a televised speech dwelt little on their suffering. Instead, he vowed to prevent any repeat, using a phrase that perhaps sums up his mentality: “Russia has been too weak,” he said. “And the weak get beaten.” Mr Putin has packed the Kremlin and state companies with cronies, suggesting he trusts only long-time friends and is intensely loyal. But he bears deep grudges against those, like Mr Khodorkovsky, who he thinks have crossed him. “For Putin, there are enemies, but you can reach agreements with enemies, and there are traitors. With traitors there can be no discussion,” says Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow radio, oneof Russia’s last independent media outlets. The west may have tried too hard to pigeonhole Mr Putin, as a liberal, statist or KGB man. In fact, he is a combination of all three. He is an economic liberal, but believes the state must play a big role in sectors such as energy and defence. His political thinking is statist, too. The lesson Mr Putin drew from the Yeltsin era was that, for now, liberal freedoms in Russia equate to chaos and collapse. As he wrote in an open letter to Russians before becoming president: “The stronger the state, the freer the individual.” Mr Putin is also very much a KGB man. Mr Rahr says two camps vying to succeed Mr Yeltsin in 1999 proposed different paths for Russia. One, led by the “oligarch”, Boris Berezovsky, advocated a more liberal path of partnership with the west, which would also have enabled the oligarchs to maintain influence. Another, backed by the security services and some lower-profile businessmen, believed in recentralising power in the Kremlin and KGB, strengthening the state, and greater independence from the west while wooing powers such as China. Their initial candidate was Yevgeny Primakov, a former head of foreign intelligence and briefly prime minister under Mr Yeltsin. After Berezovsky-controlled media crushed Mr Primakov, the oligarch backed Mr Putin, apparently believing he would do his bidding. Instead, Mr Putin sought to tame the oligarchs, fell out with Mr Berezovsky, who fled to London, and delivered essentially the Primakov agenda. In other ways, too, Mr Putin struggles to escape the instincts of a KGB man. Nato’s eastwards expansion is seen not as young democracies’ desire to join a protective alliance, but as “encirclement” of Russia. Western support for democracy in Ukraine and Georgia is viewed as imperialist meddling in Russia’s backyard. He remains cynical about western democracy and the press. “He sees the press not as an institution of civil society, but as an instrument for achieving a goal. He uses it that way, he thinks his opponents use it that way . . . ” Mr Venediktov says.

Complete article.